Digital Access for All Webversation 2: New Voices, More Insights

Digital Access for All Webversation 2: New Voices, More Insights

Posted on January 25, 2021
Earlier, I reported on some of the key findings shared during our first-ever Digital Access for All “Where We Are Now & Where We Might Go” webversation that took place in late November. Thirty representatives from the local school districts, libraries, and nonprofit organizations attended that event to learn about our discoveries to date and to share their own insights and experiences related to digital access and bridging the digital divide for ALICE households in our region.

On Thursday, January 14, we held a second webversation for 36 more community partners, including leaders from the local philanthropic foundations; chambers of commerce; healthcare, food and housing assistance providers; regional United Way organizations; colleges and universities; and others to share insights and ideas with them as well.

Here are some of the highlights from our most recent January webversation.

Many Bright Spots
As we learned from the conversations that took place during our November session, there is plenty to be hopeful about when it comes to the issues of high-speed internet connectivity, availability and affordability of devices, and access to digital skills and literacy training for ALICE families and individuals in our region.

In addition to the diligent work being done by our local school districts and libraries to offer such items as hot spots, mobile access points, Chromebook computers for students, free or reduced-cost internet plans for families, and other services, both the City of Sarasota and City of Bradenton are seeking to extend free public WiFi into local parks.

Likewise, local social and human services providers like Boys & Girls Clubs of Charlotte County, CareerSource, Turning Points, CenterPlace, The Glasser/Schoenbaum Human Services Center, and others are beefing up computer labs and, in some cases, offering extended hours for individuals to come in and use machines at their locations. Many also either currently offer or plan to offer digital skills and literacy training for students, job seekers, and older adults.

All Faiths Food Bank is taking a hands-on approach, going door-to-door to offer their constituencies help in completing applications for food, housing, and medical assistance by using staff mobile phone hot spots in areas like DeSoto County, where digital coverage is often lacking or too expensive for low-income residents to afford. They are also working with Sarasota Memorial Hospital and others to streamline the application process for services available to asset-limited families and residents using an online program called Unite Us, funded locally by the Barancik Foundation.

Groups like the Charlotte Community Foundation, Community Foundation of Sarasota County, Gulf Coast Community Foundation, Manatee Community Foundation, William G. and Marie Selby Foundation, and both area United Ways have also provided grants and funding for digital services and equipment benefitting our local school districts and community service providers.

Our local colleges and universities are playing a role as well. Both South Florida State College and State College of Florida (SCF) offer campus-wide WiFi for students and the public, as well as computer labs with extended hours to help students who may not have digital access or devices at home.

They also each are aiming to better prepare graduates for the digital world. Even prior to the COVID pandemic, South Florida State required all students to complete coursework to familiarize themselves with common software found in the workplace. SCF formed a creative partnership with FPL that enables students to gain expedited certification in key technology fields. They also sponsored a fundraising campaign that raised $100,000 to assist low-income students in purchasing high-speed internet plans and digital devices.

Likewise, our business leaders are working closely with civic, school, and government leaders to help support digital access for families, individuals, and small businesses. They are doing so by communicating about community needs with their partners and members and by sharing information about the availability of CARES Act funding for digital connectivity and devices. In the case of the Bradenton Area EDC and the EDC of Sarasota County, they also are creating forward-looking partnerships and initiatives, like Remote Coast Florida, that seek to make our region more competitive and better equipped to attract a new digital workforce.

Challenges Remain
Yet, despite all of these gains, many challenges related to digital access in our communities remain. Even for the successful initiatives mentioned above (and in our last newsletter), sustainability remains a critical concern.

Unequal access to and affordability of high-speed internet service and the high cost of devices continue to be a barrier for ALICE families and individuals in our region as well. While major Internet providers – like Comcast, Spectrum, and Century Link – all offer discount plans for asset-limited households, awareness about those plans is limited, as is the bandwidth provided through them.

Furthermore, while organizations like STUG, Goodwill Manasota, and our local school districts are attempting to fill community needs for low to no-cost devices, they are limited in their ability to meet all current and ongoing demands.

As we move toward Phase II of TPF’s Digital Access for All initiative, we will examine all of these challenges and work with community partners to explore opportunities to address them. We are pleased to have you join us on the journey!

Download our updated Digital Access for All Resource Guide for a list of links, contacts, and other information shared during both of our recent “Where We Are Now & Where We Might Go” webversations.

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